Eviction Lab: What Chicago Renters Need To Know

Share Button

Hey folks! We're back! Sorry about the lack of article last week. When my computer failed on Tuesday the 10th I figured that I would be able to have it back up and running by the weekend, with enough time to create an article for Monday the 16th. Unfortunately a missed FedEx delivery meant that I was, in fact, offline until Tuesday the 17th, at which point I had to start working on this article here. C'est la vie.

While I was away, not one but two major housing research organizations dropped some pretty major reports on us and my mailbox exploded with people linking me to either the New York Times article on Eviction Lab or the 2018 State of Rental Housing in Cook County from DePaul's Institute of Housing Studies. We're going to be looking at both of them over the next two weeks, starting with Eviction Lab. In fact, since they arrived so close together we will be using the exact same format to examine each.

Who is Eviction Lab?

Way back in 2014 I received an email from Matthew Desmond when he was at Harvard University working on a thesis about evictions in America. He asked me for some data I had purchased from the Cook County Courts for an article in my old, dearly departed real estate blog. I provided it to him. His thesis went on to become the Pulitzer Prize winning book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City." Desmond is now helming the Princeton University team behind Eviction Lab. They've got a heck of a lot of funding and some very smart statisticians and housing research gurus on the team.

Desmond's main hypothesis is that eviction and housing affordability are linked, occurring mostly when tenants cannot afford to pay their rent due to a combination of poverty, misfortune and rising housing costs. The book "Evicted" focused mostly on the eviction statistics from Milwaukee. Eviction Lab has a nationwide focus.

What Data Did They Provide?

They assembled eviction filings from across the nation: the number of cases filed and the number that resulted in an actual eviction. The site provides a heat map and a list of the results at state, county and city levels, and for some cities down to the census tract, combined with germane census data. Not every city is represented at this time due to differing policies in city and county courts on the availability and cost of records. However, at least some data is available for the majority of the US.

Can the Data be Trusted?

The data on the Eviction Lab website is just that: raw data presented in a very pretty format. They also provide a pretty detailed overview of their methodology. They don't offer much analysis at this time, leaving that up to the end users to interpret. As far as I can tell, the data as presented allows the reader to do some basic analysis but there is too much missing to be able to form a comprehensive picture of evictions nationwide at this time. Glaringly absent is data from Arizona, particularly the Phoenix area, and based on some of my own digging I do not trust the data that they provide from California. They do say in their methodology overview that they also believe California to be under reported.

For Illinois I think their data appears to be reasonably accurate and in line with data I have obtained myself for other projects.

That being said, when one is faced with an overwhelming amount of data one must still consider what is omitted. I do think that Desmond may be too convinced of his own thesis and thereby leaves out some information that could be pertinent. It takes two to tango in any lawsuit. While tenants' inability to pay vs unwillingness to pay has been Desmond's focus for many years, he leaves any consideration of landlords' willingness to file on the cutting room floor.

Eviction Lab does not mention the cost to file an eviction, which definitely has an impact on how frequently landlords file suit as opposed to taking less legitimate routes to removing delinquent renters. The time required for a case is also an omitted factor: in Chicago we're looking at a 6 month turnaround on average, a point that dissuades many landlords from filing if a delinquent renter has less time than that remaining on their lease.

The site also does not examine the difference between small private landlords and large corporate ones at this time, although placeholder links make me think that this information may eventually arrive. The decision to go into battle has a different weight if you are fighting with stealth bombers and heavy artillery, as opposed to if you are fighting with rubber bands and chewing gum. Likewise landlords will consider their opponent before filing an eviction case.

Rural areas that are dominated by small private landlords will approach eviction in a different way than suburban environments dominated by well-funded REITs. who can afford to evict every tenant who misses a rent payment. Landlords in an urban environment who know they must face the city subsidized housing authority in order to remove a tenant will be less willing to "go into battle" than a landlord who faces an unrepresented tenant. They do mention on the "Why Eviction Matters" page that tenants in some areas of the country are permitted to bring lawyers to eviction court, and in other areas they are not. I find it unfortunate that this very valid talking point is not yet reflected in the data.

By focusing on the geographic breadth of the information it is easy to fall into the trap of superficially comparing city to city with tunnel vision, seeking out only the eviction rates. The layout of the site leads you to read the information in this somewhat flawed manner. But not enough data is available for this to really be a useful undertaking at this time although perhaps in the future with more data this could change. The large range of percentages should immediately tell you that there's far more factors involved than just city-to-city competition.

Rather, where the Eviction Lab's website shines and may, in fact, prove part of Desmond's hypothesis is in the fine-grain census tract data where it is available. Looking at the tract data for Chicago one can see higher numbers in the far South Side and far West Side of the city in areas with high hardship and poverty. However, given Chicago's known issues with race-based segregation, poverty might not be the only factor in play around here when it comes to eviction.

What Do Chicago Renters Need to Know?

We'll get into our own analysis in a second but here's some basics that Chicago renters can take away from Eviction Lab. All data is from 2016.

  • Chicago's 2016 eviction rate of 1.1% is very low in comparison to the worst cities on the list.
  • The city with the highest eviction rate was North Charleston, SC, where 16.5% of renters were evicted in 2016. However, they are so vastly different from us on every level that this is an apples to oranges comparison. (Or, more aptly, a pizza to peaches comparison.)
  • Of the top 10 cities in the country by population, Chicago's eviction rate is the lowest. (Note that the reported data on Eviction Lab states that our rate is higher than the 3 top cities in California, but as stated above I do not trust the California data at this time.)
  • Of the top cities surveyed in Illinois, Chicago also has the lowest eviction rate.
  • Of the top cities in Cook County, Chicago has the lowest eviction rate.
  • Filed eviction cases in Chicago resulted in an actual eviction 34.94% of the time.
  • Outside of Cook County, cities with lower court costs saw more evictions filed but this did not necessarily impact the success rate of those cases.
  • Within Cook County, city landlord-tenant ordinances have a large impact on eviction case success rate.

Below you will find a table of information we feel is useful, including some data from Eviction Lab and some of our own research. Mobile readers, you will probably want to turn your phones to landscape view to see the whole table.

City Pop. Eviction Rate Success Rate Median income Non-White % Rent Burdened % Median Gross Rent Filing Costs
Top Cities in the US by Population
New York, NY 2,128,004 1.61% 29.11% $55,191 56.42% 32.20% $1,255 $20
Los Angeles, CA 859,644 0.38% 97.02% $51,538 46.87% 36.50% $1,209 $240
Chicago, IL 582,690 1.1% 34.94% $50,434 51.49% 31.40% $965 $268
Houston, TX 472,048 2.3% 52.28% $47,010 40.60% 29.90% $873 $267
Phoenix, AZ* 205,027 19.1% 55.59% $47,326 55.03% 30.60% $884 $33
Philadelphia, PA 277,680 3.48% 46.52% $39,770 58.45% 34.50% $922 $89.75
San Antonio, TX 225,597 4.1% 73.75% $48,183 20.45% 29.90% $856 $146
San Diego, CA 262,212 0.58% 71.47% $68,117 34.56% 32.20% $1,377 $240
Dallas, TX 283,553 1.52% 17.50% $45,125 37.84% 29.20% $863 $141
San Jose, CA 136,195 0.42% 96.64% $90,303 56.91% 31.90% $1,585 $240
Illinois Cities
Rockford 150,283 4.55% 72.94% $38,716 44.53% 32.50% $728 $253
Joliet 147,918 4.23% 58.03% $60,976 49.09% 32.40% $912 $194
Peoria 115,847 3.45% 62.67% $45,552 41.58% 29.90% $718 $166
Springfield 117,061 2.31% 42.20% $49,868 27.58% 31.00% $732 $142
Aurora 200,614 1.69% 43.53% $63,090 61.41% 31.30% $1,071 $175-253
Elgin 112,105 1.6% 44.60% $60,499 58.75% 31.60% $981 $268
Naperville 145,058 1.38% 49.58% $109,468 32.08% 26.90% $1,308 $142-175
Cook County Cities
Cicero 84,361 3.28% 28.97% $41,866 92.44% 31.00% $857 $268
Arlington Hts 75,802 1.94% 44.74% $81,059 16.95% 26.30% $1,168 $268
Evanston 75,603 1.6% 27.20% $70,041 39.76% 33.60% $1,200 $268
Schaumburg 74,559 2.2% 39.50% $74,086 38.67% 23.70% $1,245 $268
Palatine 69,188 2.67% 40.63% $71,573 36.65% 26.10% $1,110 $268
Skokie 65,061 1.98% 34.78% $66,999 45.80% 33.40% $1,129 $268
Des Plaines 58,930 2.49% 32.82% $65,109 35.89% 28.20% $1,058 $268


  • All data is based on 2016 numbers with the exception of Phoenix, where 2005 numbers were the most recent available.
  • Data is sourced from Eviction Lab with the exception of the filing costs column.
  • Filing costs are pulled from each county's respective courthouse website and include the cost to file a case where a single tenant paying the median rent rate was 3 months behind. This does not include additional fees that may be tacked on for appearance, jury demands, proof of service, paperwork, etc.
  • If two numbers are provided for filing fees, the city in question spans the county line and the costs for both counties are cited.
  • In most cases our numbers matched that of Eviction Lab. However in the case of Phoenix, Eviction Lab provided a 19.1% eviction rate but our own math indicated a lower (but still comparatively high) 10.4%.
  • Race demographic column is provided as race-based discrimination is commonly cited as a cause for a landlord to file an eviction suit.

How Will/Should Chicago Respond to the Data?

My guess is that Chicago politicians who tumble to the data provided by Eviction Lab will look at the surface information and think that our low eviction rate means there is no crisis here. They will not drill down to the census tract level and see the uneven distribution of filings, which paints a far more severe picture of how income, race, and Chicago's ongoing segregation problems combine at the Cook County Courthouse day after day. (Well, they won't unless someone happens to share this article with them. Hint, hint.)

That low 1.1% eviction rate is deceptive. 19,680 eviction cases were filed in 2016 against Chicago renting households, and 6877 of those households wound up losing their apartments accordingly. This does not count scenarios where tenants agreed to move out before they faced the judge, either at the mandatory arbitration at the courthouse or through less formal means such as accepting cash from the landlord in exchange for the keys. Rather than relying on that 1.1% figure, let me explain this in a different way: according to the census bureau, in 2016 the city of Des Plaines had 5127 renting households. In one year Chicago evicted 1750 more households than the entire renting population of Des Plaines. Our numbers may be comparatively low when placed up against the other big cities in the nation, but that's still a whole lot of people without housing. And based on personal experience I can verify that Desmond has it right on at least one count: in most eviction cases I experienced from the landlord side of things, low income was apparent as a potential problem from the minute the tenants moved in. In other words, it's very rarely a case of "I won't pay the rent." It's almost always "I can't pay the rent."

The Chicago city government has made some great strides recently towards the creation of more affordable housing, although they have done so through pilot programs in areas that are known to be gentrifying. They have not yet expanded these programs to cover the far south side and west side. I hope that that low 1.1% eviction rate does not lull developers and city officials into the false belief that these affordable housing ordinances are no longer necessary. They are very critical, but they need to expand beyond the borders of Logan Square and the Near West Side.

Finally, some things can be implied about screening. On the side of landlords who screen tenants, some noise has been made lately about the possibility of sealing eviction records statewide. Aldermen have raised the issue of banning credit reports as a means of screening tenants in Chicago as well. Landlords are understandably up in arms about these measures. But if the numbers tell us anything, all they really need to know about the average tenant to approve them is their income and their prior rental history, and that can be verified without checking any centralized databases. Get a pay stub and call the prior landlord, just as the landlords have done for decades, and you have all you need to know.

As for the screening of landlords, such as the service provided by RentConfident in our safety reports: we do look at how many tenants a landlord has evicted in the past year as part of our Signature Reports. We also look at how many tenants a landlord has tried to evict. In the past we had been warning tenants if a landlord attempted to evict too many people or had too low of a success rate for their eviction filings. We will continue to do so, but will adjust our warning threshold to reflect the Eviction Lab data.

Eviction Lab Logo is © Eviction Lab, 2018.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

Published by

Kay Cleaves